The Wars of the Roses continued

The growing rancour of the struggle was marked by the fact that the Yorkists, after Northampton, showed themselves by no means so merciful and scrupulous as in their earlier days. Retaliatory executions began, though on a small scale, and when York reached London he at last began to talk of his rights to the crown, and to propose the deposition of Henry VI. Yet moderation was still so far prevalent in the ranks of his adherents that they refused to follow him to such lengths. Warwick and the other leading men of the party dictated a compromise, by which Henry was to reign for the term of his Richard of natural life, but Duke Richard was to be recognized as his heir and to succeed him on the throne. They had obviously borrowed the expedient from the terms of the treaty of Troyes. But the act of parliament which embodied it did not formally disinherit the reigning king's son, as the treaty of Troyes had done, but merely ignored his existence.

It would have been well for England if this agreement had held, and the crown had passed peaceably to the house of York, after the comparatively short and bloodless struggle which had just ended. But Duke Richard had forgotten to reckon with the fierce and unscrupulous energy of Queen Margaret, when she was at bay in defence of her son's rights. Marching with a trifling force to expel her from the north, he was surprised and slain at Wakefield (Dec. 30, 1460). But it was not his death that was the main misfortune, but the fact that in the battle the Lancastrians gave no quarter to small or great, and that after it they put to death York's brother-in-law Salisbury and other prisoners. The heads of the duke and the earl were set up over the gates of York. This ferocity was repeated when Margaret and her northern host beat Warwick at the second battle of St Albans (Feb. 17, 1461), where they had the good fortune to recover possession of the person of King Henry. Lord Bonville and the other captives of rank were beheaded next morning.

After this it was but natural that the struggle became a mere record of massacres and executions. The Yorkists proclaimed Edward, Duke Richard's heir, king of England; they took no further heed of the claims of King Henry, declared their leader the true successor of Richard II, and stigmatized the whole period of the Lancastrian rule as a mere usurpation. They adopted a strict legitimist theory of the descent of the crown, and denied the right of parliament to deal with the succession. This was the first step in the direction of absolute monarchy which England had seen since the short months of King Richard's tyranny in 1397-1399. It was but the first of many encroachments of the new dynasty upon the liberties that had been enjoyed by the nation under the house of Lancaster.

The revenge taken by the new king and his cousin Richard of Warwick for the slaughter at Wakefield and St Albans was prompt and dreadful. They were now well supported by the whole of southern England; for not only had the queen's ferocity shocked the nation, but the reckless plundering of her northern moss-troopers in the home counties had roused the peasantry and townsfolk to an interest in the struggle which they had never before displayed. Up to this moment the civil war had been conducted like a great faction fight; the barons and their livened retainers had been wont to seek some convenient heath or hill and there to fight out their quarrel with the minimum of damage to the countryside. The deliberate harrying of the Midlands by Margaret's northern levies was a new departure, and one bitterly resented. The house of Lancaster could never for the future count on an adherent south of Trent or east of Chiltern. The Yorkist army that marched in pursuit of the raiders, and won the bloody field of Towton under Warwick's guidance, gave no quarter. Not only was the slaughter in that battle and the pursuit more cruel than anything that had been seen since the day of Evesham, but the executions that followed were ruthless. Ere Edward turned south he had beheaded two earls Devon and Wiltshire and forty-two knights, and had hanged many prisoners of lesser estate.

Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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